Civic Lessons: Policing, Citizenship and Equality
The killing of Solomon Tekah, an 18 year-old Ethiopian-Israeli, shot to death by a police officer, led to mass demonstrations. Young Israelis of Ethiopian descent voiced their frustrations and anger with what they described as racism and police brutality. The violent scenes afterwards, with roads blocked and car tires burning were all too familiar, reminding of similar events in the United States or France, where police violence unleashed pent-up resentment and rage. For minorities, in Israel and elsewhere, discrimination is in daily institutional practices, invisible to non-minorities. Stopped and searched for no other reason than their skin color (or other ethnic characteristics) is a constant reminder of societal prejudices. Discrimination can also be about neglect, when minority neighborhoods suffering high rates of crime and their residents exposed to violence. For Arab citizens, a national minority in Israel, violent crime, the abundance of illegal weapons and the high number of murder rates are all evidence of intended neglect.
Political scientists have paid scant attention to police and policing, a somewhat surprising neglect considering its presence and impact. The encounters between police and ordinary people are a display of citizenship, in its complexities and contradictions. Police discretion on whom to stop and question, separating those determined as normative civilians from those perceived a threat, pertains to existing divisions and stigmas that cut through citizenship. Citizens, who decide to approach police for help, or avoid police at all costs, display their own sense of trust and belonging in state institutions. For minorities, police can be an essential service, to protect their livelihood and property, but at the same time a threat and a proof of their defunct citizenship. Young men in French banlieue who flee when they see police officers, Black men in American towns careful not make a suspicious move or young Israelis of Ethiopian descent resentment of being stopped and search, articulate their citizenship in their fears, frustrations, expectations and demands.
Police, representing and exercising state power, authorized to provide security and maintain public order, both serves citizens and restricts the freedom of those defined as security threats or disturbing public order. Under these circumstances, encounters between police officers and minority citizens are rarely neutral or abstract. Rather, these are encounters between representatives of state power, carrying also their personal preferences and prejudices, and members of groups suspicious of the state and its institutions. Police discrimination, real or perceived, often more visible than that of other institutions, demonstrates the stratification of citizenship behind the veil of equality. Protests against police, demands for reform and growing distrust are articulations of citizenship demands, demonstrating that police and policing cannot be divorced from politics.
In Policing Citizens: Minority policy in Israel, we use different group’s perceptions of police and policing to learn about Israel’s citizenship regime, its inclusions, exclusions, privileges and hierarchies. The dilemmas we explore in Israel, a diverse society with deep schisms and inherent tensions, a stratified and contested citizenship regime, and growing securitization due to external and internal developments, are different but also comparable to dilemmas and paradoxes that appear elsewhere, in different shapes and forms. Israelis of Ethiopian descent are a visible minority with experiences that resemble those of visible minorities elsewhere. Arab citizens are a national minority that often clash directly with police, but also suffer police neglect and insecurity. Ultra-Orthodox Jews are a religious minority determined to protect their way of life and resisting state intervention. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union provide an example of a relatively successful immigration that integrated in society and its views of police and policing, despite past suspicions, resemble those of the majority.
Policing Citizens: Minority policy in Israel by Guy Ben-Porat and Fany Yuval is available now.